The wrong formula

By Garga Chatterjee

26 March 2012

India’s National Science Day highlights the deep malaise in state-sponsored science awareness programmes.
Image credit: Paul Aitchison

Image credit: Paul Aitchison

In India, 28 February is celebrated as National Science Day. It is reported that on that date in 1928, a 40-year-old Tamil Brahmin named Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, sitting at 210 Bowbazar Street in the erstwhile building of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Calcutta, discovered certain phenomena regarding the scattering of light when passed through a transparent material, which would come to be known as the Raman effect. For this discovery, Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930. This was India’s first Nobel in the sciences, the first awarded to an Indian for research done in India. It was also the last one.

Under the prodding of the National Council of Science and Technology Communication, since 1987 the Indian government has celebrated 28 February as National Science Day; it is perhaps unsurprising that many Indians don’t even know of its existence. Indeed, the day largely bypasses most universities in the country, and instead is mostly observed by those who receive patronage from the central government. In states where the provincial education boards and councils are still dominant – Tamil Nadu and West Bengal (Paschim Banga), for example – National Science Day is largely unknown. Organised celebrations occur at schools following the national syllabus dictated by New Delhi and at central government offices, especially educational and research institutions. These events often bring in sarkari chief guests, ranging from the dubious to the infamous, with the occasional savant. Lamps are lit, speeches are made, marigold garlands are worn and hung up, a lot of tea and coffee is drunk, and some samosas are consumed. And then everyone goes home. 

In addition, the government presents awards recognising excellence in popularising science and in innovative scientific education. The prime minister, the minister of science and technology and, where they exist, state ministers of the same gladden newspaper owners by buying full-page ads, typically exhibiting their own beaming faces and a paragraph extolling some supposed recent leaps in the country’s scientific progress. This is how the citizens of India get their annual peg of the scientific spirit.

Some schools organise competitions and prizes, often showcasing some genuinely energetic kids. Yet almost invariably these students’ enthusiasm will be suppressed by the mindlessness of the bureaucrats organising the prize-distribution events, turning them into yet another of the many state-sponsored farces that pepper the Indian school year. The scientific aspirations of many a future Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, Meghnad Saha or Jagadish Chandra Bose will thus meet an untimely end. The only ones left smiling at the end of the day will be some petty functionaries and bureaucrats, and the decorators, caterers and suppliers. Such is the fate of our young scientists.

What more can we expect from such an unimaginative, top-down exercise so divorced from people and society? The idea behind National Science Day is undoubtedly to give India’s young minds an admiration for science, to seed dreams of unravelling the mysteries of the world, the universe, the human condition. But a population whose idea of success is defined by the INR 5 million salaries of Indian Institute of Management graduates, and whose best mathematicians, physicists and engineers will end up as number-crunchers for financial speculators, has a rather poor appreciation of scientific research.

In the absence of this appreciation, there is no social audit of science in India. Hence, the many professors who gleefully plagiarise and publish third-rate research work in fourth-rate journals, which are read by very few and cited by even fewer. Some of these people pass themselves off as experts, even serving on committees and sub-committees in a cynical waste of everyone’s time. With such role models, it is unsurprising that many youngsters are turned away from pursuing science, in school or beyond.

Unpopular science
In stark contrast to such government-sponsored initiatives to inculcate scientific culture, India has a long tradition of popular, broad-based scientific and rationalist thought sustained by grassroots support. These movements grew without state patronage, and have been most successful when the ideals of scientific culture have been integrated into the day-to-day lives and social realities of the people. The brightest examples are from certain epochs of the Indian nationalist movement, and the anti-caste rationalist movements of the Dravidian political current.

The Indian nationalist movement often promoted the scientific aspect of the idea of self-reliance. This first came to fore during the Swadeshi movement in the first decade of the 20th century when boycotts of British-made goods were meant to be followed by the development of technologies ‘of our own’, especially in Bengal. Small scale industrial units inspired by a Swadeshi bent started taking baby-steps forward. Swadeshi institutions of technical learning were also conceived – the most important one was the National Council of Education’s Bengal Technical Institute, which was to become Jadavpur University. Later, during the non-cooperation movement, when a large-scale boycott of Raj-sponsored educational and research institutions was taking place, a concomitant stress was placed on building up independent institutions of science and higher learning. This saw the birth of the National Medical Institute (Jatio Aurbiggyan Bidyaloy) which would later become the Calcutta National Medical College.

Scientists such as Jagadish Chandra Bose, Meghnad Saha and Satyendranath Bose were invariably skilled at communicating scientific ideas to the masses. They were not simply denizens of the laboratory, but wrote both fiction and non-fiction in widely circulated publications, gave extensive public talks, and started popular science magazines. Jagadish Chandra Bose became an especially potent symbol of the ‘scientific’ flank of the emerging pan-Indian nationhood. Similar trends were also evident in the first half of the 20th century in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and Rajshekhar Basu ‘Parashuram’, literary giants who penned lucid articles and reflections on the scientific discoveries of their time.

Generally, these men went beyond the narrow formulations of a nationalistic ‘Indian’ science. This is important, for already those of the Hindu-nationalist ilk had started to claim that many new scientific discoveries and technological innovations were already present in ancient times in India, that such knowledge could be found in the scriptures, and that India could thus rediscover and recapture some long-lost glory. Meghnad Saha rebutted such claims, and saw his famous sarcastic quip ‘Shob byade achhe’ (Everything is in the Vedas) become common idiom in Bengali.

India science_2

Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman

When it comes to a more robust scientific culture, though, India’s best examples are the anti-caste and anti-Brahminical movements spanning present-day Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The rationalist principles at the core of these movements also undoubtedly elevated the status of scientific inquiry in those areas. It should not be forgotten that in a supposedly ‘essentially spiritual’ area like Southasia, Tamil Nadu has time after time elected declared atheists and irreverent leaders to the post of chief-minister. M Karunanidhi, a product of this current, publicly questioned the divine status of Ram and the building a land bridge to Sri Lanka by dismantling the myth surrounding the Ram Setu. That Karunanidhi’s political career has survived that statement is no small achievement, and says a lot about the gallery he was playing to. In more recent times, especially in the 1970s and 1980s in West Bengal, popular science and rationalist publications such as Utsa Manush (Human Origin) sparked ‘science and rationalism’ groups.

In many ways, science policy in the Union of India reflects the nature of the Indian state: an ultra-strong centre aims to dominate the provinces by formulating common principles of policy. After Partition, before the current centralised science policy took hold, several factors contributed to the vitality of science in India. Scientific discourse and education in India’s many vernacular languages was especially important. For instance, the scientist Satyendranath Bose created the Bongiyo Bigyan Parishad (Bengal Science Council) and also started a science magazine called Kishor Gyan Bigyan (Youth Knowledge Science), which has continued publishing for more than a half-century. Yet such ground-level trends have now been sapped of their vitality by the general lack of support for non-Hindi languages in post-Partition India. In the early post-Partition days, India even served as a magnet for foreign stars of the scientific world looking to further their careers. These included giants such as the British geneticist J B S Haldane, who joined the Indian Statistical Institute at Calcutta. 

Since then, mediocrity, lack of autonomy, bureaucratic shackles and a general lack of inspiration have snapped these once-budding links between science and society in India. Bureaucratic red tape has also prevented private trusts and wealthy individuals from supporting science and research. The Tatas have a long record of such endeavours, and industrialist Rajen Mookerjee’s patronage of the Indian Statistical Institute also merits mention. These grants are markedly different from the private model of scientific and technical education that has evolved in the Indian Union ever since, where people of wealth create low-grade institutions of science and technology largely as money-making machines. The contribution of private players towards research and development in India is abysmal.

Foreign and fictional
In the absence of sterling scientific research in India, in the view of many Indians science has become something that white men do. This not only leads to a lack of confidence in engaging with science, but in a broader sense makes science, as a living body of knowledge, that much more distant from reality, and that much more alien to the youthful imagination.

For instance, languages in this part of the world, especially Bangla, have a century-long heritage of widely read science fiction. In 1879, Jagadananda Roy penned Shukra Bhraman (Travels to Venus), with imaginary descriptions of aliens that notably predated H.G.Well’s The War of the Worlds by a decade. Roy was not a one-off figure – in 1882, Hemlal Dutta published the famous science-fiction piece ‘Rohoshho’ (The Mystery) in Bigyan Dorpon (The Mirror of Science), a picture-heavy science magazine of the time. This trend continued with Hemendra Kumar Ray, Satyajit Ray, Premendra Mitra, Mohommod Jafor Iqbal, Shirshendu Mukherjee and still holds serious currency up until the present day. Fictional scientists like Professor Shanku and Dr Bhootnath Nondy have initiated a whole generation of Bengali-reading teenagers into the romance of scientific discovery. Such writing gave science a wider reach, made the figure of the scientist something more tangible, and made the idea of discovery more conceivable. With Hollywood’s increasing grip on entertainment and the long shadow of sci-fi fantasies – produced in a foreign language and often disregarding the science behind the fantasy – whatever power Indian science fiction had has been damaged, possibly irreparably.

How Southasia views its scientists also points to deeper pathologies in our nation states. As with many other fields, Southasian governments have too often tried to smother science with divisive religious and political concerns. Take theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, born into an Ahmadi Muslim family and hence shunned by the Pakistani government, which officially considered him a heretic due to his religious identity. With other branches of science undervalued, blind nationalism has meant that Southasia’s most recognised scientists are often those who represent a country’s nuclear capabilities – India’s APJ Abdul Kalam, for instance. Our ignorance and insecurity also leads us to build absurd myths around our scientists, for example the enduring lore that Jagadish Chandra Bose was the first to ‘discover’ that plants are living.

There are many necessary pre-conditions to create a culture of science. These include freedom of speech and expression, a society that allows intellectuals the audacity to be loyal only to truth, and an environment that supports iconoclastic ideas, regardless of how towering the icon or how sacrilegious the idea may be. If these things existed in India, many would have protested the arrogant and narrow-minded parade of swadeshi aerial bombers, tanks, missiles and devices of mass murder that continues to be used to hoodwink the people in the name of ‘scientific achievement’.

Many Indian scientists – M V Ramanna, S Ramasubramanian, T R Govindarajan, Ashoke Sen – have stood against this dystopic vision of science and its fruits. But India today shames their legacy. Look no further than National Science Day 2012, the theme of which was Clean Energy Options and Nuclear Safety. At a time when the Indian government is actively trying to reduce nuclear suppliers’ liability in case of a disaster, the parroting of nuclear safety slogans only shows how cynically the state uses public awareness programmes as theatres of propaganda.

Fortunately, all propaganda can be exposed, though doing so takes time. Critical enquiry, the persistent questioning of dogma, and a culture of open and accessible communication in science and beyond can form the arsenal of those determined to return Indian science to its popular and humanistic roots. Science should be taught and practiced, not worshipped the way it currently is by the Indian government, repeating platitudes like pujas where the chants have become meaningless to all but the priests themselves. Let’s stop the invocations and get back to the critical questioning.

~ Garga Chatterjee is a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University and a Postdoctoral Scholar in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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